Rogers Park non-profit organization empowers refugee teen girls

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Teenage girls from Tanzania, Syria, Congo and almost 80 more countries come in and out of the doors at GirlFoward.

Each girl has a different story to tell, but they all have a similar need - to find a community they feel welcomed in.

"At GirlForward we are a community of support dedicated to creating and enhancing opportunities for girls who've been displaced globally by conflict and persecution," said Ashley Marine, GirlForward Deputy Director. "So what that means is that we work mostly with high school-age girls who come to the United States through refugee resettlement or asylum processes."

"GirlForward is everything for us," Neema Igihozo said. Igihozo came to the U.S. from the Congo.

"On my first day of school, students would make fun of me because I didn't speak English," Igihozo said. So, she came to GirlFoward where she started to learn. She was even able to get help with her other homework.

The non-profit offers mentorship, tutoring and a safe space for girls to come after school and over the summer.

"It's only for girls, no boys," participant Rama Alrifai said. "I asked them why. They tell me because they want girls to go out and know new people and I was so interested in that and came to enjoy."

"Really the cornerstone of it is our space," Marine added. "It's focused on creating a space where girls can come together to think about their identities, connect to other girls and have deep conversations and build community."

Antoinette Mpawenayo is in her senior year of high school. She's been coming to GirlForward for years.

"I've got to see girls who are just like me, refugees, from different countries and I've gotten to know them as people and really gotten close to them and I call them family and friends," Mpawenayo said.

GirlForward was founded in 2011 here in Chicago but expanded to Austin, Texas in 2016.

Its goal is to give young refugee girls the opportunities and resources to succeed in America. But more importantly, the program wants the girls to know that there's someone there for them.

"You're not the only one. Someone is here behind you, here to help you and support you," Igihozo said.

"I don't know about the others but I've definitely struggled with adapting to this culture," Mpawenayo added. "But having this place where you have people who you share the same feeling or the same reasons to be here is just great."
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